Drying books
Image [cc] Windward CC Library

Ohio County West Virginia has finally emptied out the county law library and has given away, or sold the old state Supreme Court regional collection in the Wheeling, WV branch. According to the Herald Star, some of the collection will be recycled into pulp and eventually turned into products like paper towels.

I’m going back and forth on the idea that a county would close a number of law libraries and essentially give away the 75,000 books housed there for decades. However, reading a little bit further into the story, it does seem to make sense, even if it causes a law librarian’s stomach to churn a bit while running down the list of facts behind the closings:

  • A three-month study of the Huntington library showed not one person used the library (it was shut down
  • Lawyers were not using it and seemed to be happy with purchasing their own collections or using online resources
  • The Parkersburg, Beckley, Clarksburg, and Martinsburg branches had already been closed
  • Total cost of running the branch libraries was estimated at $110,000.00 per year
  • The main law library in Charleston will remain open
  • Space is a premium, and it seems that many of the decision makers wanted to open up that space for their own departments

County law libraries are unique. Perhaps it has undergone the most change of any type of law library due to the fact that the customer base has shifted almost completely away from supporting the local bar members, to being almost completely a resource for pro se litigants and the incarcerated. The even trickier part is that those that run the county law library (usually a Board of Directors) are usually made up of members of the local bar and members of the local government. So, the leadership is comprised of people that may have used it at one time, but no longer do, or have competing interests that may influence them into viewing the space occupied by the library as wasteful (and would be much better used by whatever department they happen to run.) Perhaps this is an oversimplification of the situation, but having lived this, I can at least anacdotally back it up.

County law libraries have a tough situation on their hands. Some are adjusting to the shift in the customer base and are attempting new business models. Travis County, Texas, for example, has created a very successful Pro Se self-help clinics, and seem to be moving away from traditional methods of supporting the bench and bar through the collection, and support them in other ways by reducing the demand placed upon the courts and bar by unrepresented litigants. I think that this is the type of thinking that successful county law libraries are adopting to survive.

No longer should the library be about the linear feet of National Reporters. It must be about the service to the community, finding ways to reduce the stress on the courts, and finding ways of engaging with the bar members beyond the idea of having books available for them to read. If county law libraries do not adopt these new methods, many more will see their collections broken down into pulp and turned into paper towels.